The Archive Below the Stairs

by Allie Newman

Recently, I have been spending a great deal of time in the Special Collections reading room on the 12th floor of the library, pouring over rare books and manuscripts that have had their bindings repaired or replaced, which is the subject of my dissertation. Luckily for me, the bindery of Douglas Cockerell and Son, who did a great deal of this conservation from the 1950s through to the end of the 1970s, made a habit of leaving a note in the rear of the books they had worked on in order to identify the actions they had taken. Even luckier for me, their entire archive, lasting from the late 1890s until 1987, is housed in the British Library. This archive not only contains correspondence between the bindery and their clients, but includes price and supply lists, articles, and personal correspondence discussing historical binding structures and how elements of these structures can be applied in modern rebindings. But one thing was missing: the University of Glasgow’s side of the story.

Libraries, especially those of ancient universities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, have historically had a habit of either not keeping the greatest records, or disposing of records that would potentially be useful to modern researchers. Luckily, steps are being taken to improve this problem, but the records I was interested in were created during a dangerous time for any record keeping system: a relocation. The University’s library moved to its current home in 1968, in the process shedding a great deal of old documents that were no longer deemed useful. Robert MacLean, assistant special collections librarian, confirmed that documents relating to rare book conservation were most likely among those lost to the bins and paper shredders.

But one day, flipping through an early printed book in the reading room, an older gentleman approached me, pleased to see that I was working with a book that he had helped catalogue into the Glasgow Incunabula Project. Over the course of our conversation, I learned that not only had he been the assistant keeper of rare books during the period I was interested in, he had actually corresponded directly with the Cockerell bindery! He, too, initially thought that all those records were long gone, but after pondering the topic for a moment, he added, “Well, there are those filing cabinets under the stairs…”

And, joy of joys, there were those filing cabinets under the stairs, producing two slim files of correspondence with Cockerell and another binder. Robert, who fetched them for me, noted that these files actually weren’t recorded anywhere, and without the knowledge of the retired keeper, it is possible that they may have never come to light. He is now in the process of going through that mysterious filing cabinet under the stairs, taking note of what other useful documents might be hiding in it.

While the enquiry that led to the re-discovery of the filing cabinet may seem specific, even esoteric, it is a great example of archivists and record keepers being unable to predict the needs of future users with 100% accuracy. Without keeping records of records, the passage of time, shifting of spaces, and changes in staffing may cause items to disappear, even if they’re simply hiding under a stairwell.


Alex Duthie – Govanhill Baths Blog 10/2/2016

Hey Everyone!

The Govanhill Baths website appears to be down at the moment (!), but I have a blog prepared, so I’ll share it with you first then post it on the G.B Blog later :).

Here it is:

This week I’d like to introduce some of the challenges that we face in trying to run and preserve the archive here at Govanhill.

Govanhill Baths Exterior

Though the building is spectacular architecturally, an Edwardian municipal bathhouse is far from a conventional archive space. Our archival collections are stored in the former ‘Ladies Hot Baths’, on the upper floor of the building, with our ‘Office’ being kept in a cubicle!

As renovations are an ongoing process, this part of the building is currently without heating , so it can get pretty chilly. Moreover, the roof is somewhat insecure and so conditions are at times damp. The fluctuation in temperature and moisture is a particular concern, as stability of climate is key when attempting to secure the long term preservation of paper records.

What’s more, due to broken windows I’ve even had the pleasure of being visited by local pigeons whilst sorting through materials!
Despite these challenges I believe that the archive at Govanhill is a great example of how community projects can flourish in even the most tricky of circumstances. We have decent storage in the form of two large shelving units and protect the items through the use of watertight plastic boxes. The shelves are then covered by a tarpaulin to protect them from the worst of Glasgow’s weather. We also have a number of ‘standard archival boxes’, which meet international regulations. Within each of our boxes are ‘Silica gel’ pouches, which combat moisture.


These materials were procured by our chief archivist Paula Larkin, with the help from a grant provided by the ‘Heritage Lottery Fund’. It was this endowment – gifted as part of the Bath’s centenary celebrations in 2014 – that allowed for the archive to be established. Though not a large sum, this money has provided a decent and stable facility for the keeping an archival collection.

The heritage money also allowed Paula to buy a laptop and scanner, which will hopefully in the future allow us to digitize our collections so that more people can have access to them!

It goes to show that with ingenuity and a few modest resources local groups can store precious items. At Govanhill we’re able to secure items to a professional standard and keep them close to the people who care about them most.

Every flood Has a Silver Lining? The Florence Flood of 1966

by Allie Newman

Florence, Italy has been known as a cultural center for centuries, earning such grand attributes as “The Athens of the Middle Ages” and “The Birthplace of the Renaissance”. Once the home of the affluent and powerful Medici family, and later the capital of the Kingdom of Italy, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the public and private collections of the city were home to some of the world’s most precious artworks, books, and records. The city also fostered the establishment and growth of world-renowned institutions such as the Uffizi, the Archives of the Opera del Duomo, and the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale. Unfortunately, in spite of all of its positives, Florence had one very large strike against it: it was complacent.

The River Arno, which runs through the heart of the city, burst its banks in 1557, causing a great deal of damage as well as loss of life. This was before the beginning of the construction of the Uffizi and less than 100 years after the rise of the Medici family, so it was considered to be an issue of the past- after 409 years, the destructive nature of the Arno had largely been forgotten. However, in November 1966, Florence became quickly and harshly reacquainted with the river’s bad side. After a period of heavy rain, flood waters rushed through the city in the early hours of the morning, ultimately rising to 22 feet in some areas. The water was damaging enough, but the floodwaters also carried with them oil and sewage, which added a new dimension of contamination.

1. Flood water in the Piazza del Duomo

When the water receded, it left behind a recovery project the likes of which the world had never seen. Tragically, tens of thousands of artworks, books, and records were completely destroyed, with no hope of recovery. Tens of millions of others were severely damaged, and needed immediate attention in order to stop active degradation, particularly in the badly affected Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale. Into this grim situation descended hundreds of volunteers willing to assist in any way they could, as well as a host of expert conservators. Figures that would go on to lead the field of book conservation, such as Christopher Clarkson and Nicholas Pickwoad, helped to develop and implement some of the first batch paper conservation at the Biblioteca, including mass deacidification and mass drying. In addition, a nine step system was developed in order to give books and papers the treatment they required as quickly as possible.

2. Mass paper drying in the Biblioteca

The flood, while devastating, caused somewhat of a Renaissance of conservation not only in Florence but throughout the world. Institutions, horrified at the destruction in Florence, rushed to hire conservators and construct detailed disaster plans. The flood and recovery efforts became the fodder for thousands of field-advancing journal articles and lectures, and damaged books allowed binding structures and materials to be studied in ways that would have been impossible otherwise. Pickwoad refers to the flood as “the birth of modern book conservation and bibliography,” and historians tend to agree with him. It is difficult to view a flood or any other disaster as anything but terrible and destructive, but in fact they can provide amazing opportunities for the development of skills and the improvement of the field as a whole.

The Dublin Public Record Office Fire: Catastrophe and Comebacks

Two years ago I had the privilege of studying in Ireland at Trinity College Dublin. While pursuing my History degree I grew interested in the physical remnants of the past and in the field of archives more generally. This curiosity was kindled through the many hours I spent in the imposing, highly Victorian, reading rooms of the National Library on Kildare Street. There I read records as disparate as eighteenth century recipe books and twentieth century war diaries.

However I soon came to understand that in Dublin history is a concern that extends beyond the cloistered environments of libraries and archives, it resonates with the city’s people. The year 2013 for example saw extensive public commemorations of the 1913 ‘Lock-Out’, perhaps Ireland’s most famous industrial struggle. Through marches, art-works and theatrical performances, residents celebrated the centenary of this vital episode in the capital’s history. Moreover, 2013 could be viewed as a ‘warm up’ for future historical commemorations, as in coming years events like the Easter Rising of 1916 and the Irish Civil War will all receive significant and sincere contemplation.

It was during the Irish of Civil War of 1922 – 23 that the violent course of history came to clash with the sheltered environments of archives. During this upheaval the Public Record Office, housed in the grounds of the Four Courts building, Ireland’s legal epicentre, was destroyed in dramatic circumstances. The P.R.O had been based at Four Courts, on the banks of the River Liffey since 1867 and was a uniquely designed repository.

However in April 1922, the site was occupied by Republican forces opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the document which established the Irish Free State and abandoned the goal of a united Ireland. Over the following weeks the P.R.O was used to hold supplies including explosives. Several months of intense fighting followed, the site being repeatedly shelled by the Provisional Government.

On June 30th 1922, an explosion and resulting fire caused the loss of thousands of documents, some dating back as early as the high middle ages. The items destroyed ranged from legal proceedings to genealogical records, from ecclesiastical documents to wills and amounted to “most of the records of English governance in Ireland stretching back to the thirteenth century.”

The Four Courts Bombardment (1922) ©RTE Stills Library
The Four Courts Bombardment (1922)
©RTE Stills Library

The gravity of the loss was immediately apparent to contemporaries in Dublin. An article in the Irish Times from July lamented that these “precious records” had been “devoured by flames ” and thus could be of no use to future historians .
Perhaps the best account of the tragedy is supplied by Ernie O’Malley, an anti-treaty I.R.A officer who was based at Four Courts during the Civil War. Known retrospectively as the ‘I.R.A Intellectual’ , O’Malley documented his experiences in three works of poetic autobiographical prose. It was in the second of these texts ‘The Singing Flame’ that O’Malley recounted the story of the P.R.O explosion, writing that “the yard was littered with chunks of masonry and smouldering records; pieces of white paper were gyrating in the upper air like seagulls”. O’Malley beautifully captured the melancholy of the scene, surrounded by “half burnt broken volumes”, with “leaves of white paper” being carried up into the air. Supposedly, calls from archivists for the public to return found portions of documents were largely ignored, as scraps were kept as souvenirs.

If the story were to end here, it would amount to another bleak example of violence and warfare eroding the vestiges of history, whether deliberately or accidentally; a sad but familiar narrative which continues up to this day with the horrific destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra by ISIL forces.

However, recent events provide a more positive conclusion, highlighting the ability of archivists and historians to adapt to adverse circumstances. The research group CIRCLE, based at Trinity College and headed by several historians, has endeavoured over the past forty years to reconstruct material lost in the 1922 fire. Using sources from the early 1800s, these academics have managed to compile and digitise a wealth of material relating to the legal and monarchical realm of Medieval Ireland, much of which is available to view for free through the CIRCLE website.

Thus it is shown that scholarship and the devotion of resources to archival professionals, even the greatest of tragedies can provide opportunities for scholarly exploration and ultimately a greater insight into the past.